A lodged anchor, a camera left topside and a fierce current provide clues

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Posted by on April 01, 2007 at 16:57:08:

Ten long days have passed since the mysterious disappearance of an underwater photographer off the coast of Cape Mendocino — and still the questions remain.

San Francisco resident Kawika Chetron, 32, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated software engineer for Cisco Systems, set off alone from the Eureka Public Marina on March 17 at approximately 11 a.m.

The only signs of him found to date include his 17-foot Boston Whaler, called Rapture, anchored and half-swamped in just over 100 feet of water west of Blunts Reef, with his camera still on board.

A highly skilled diver said to be in exceptional physical condition, Chetron learned to dive when he was 12, and logged as many as 250 dives a year.

He took up underwater photography only in 2004, and his friends soon learned it was just one more thing he was very, very good at.

“You have to keep in mind he didn’t even own a camera until a couple of years ago,” said friend and occasional dive partner Chuck Tribolet. “But he did his homework, and he asked the right questions. You never had to tell the guy anything twice.”

Part of a close-knit group of Bay Area divers, Chetron went on dives all over the world, and he had some great photos — and stories — to prove it.

But the man with everything had one quality his friends did not especially envy.

“His friend Clinton Bauder called it ‘a bad case of solo,’” Tribolet said.

“I don’t have a problem with solo diving in mundane places,” he said, but the Blunts Reef area is anything but mundane.

Commercial diver Charles Notthoff, from McKinleyville, knows this better than most.

He and fellow diver John Corbett were called in March 19 to search the area beneath the Rapture for any sign of Chetron.

The two divers went out with a 47-foot motor lifeboat from the U.S. Coast Guard Small Boat Station in Samoa, and Notthoff went in the water.

“The waves were not bad that day, but it’s a very confused area. Swell, currents and wave sets seem to come from everywhere,” he said. “I got in as close as they could get me just downstream of the boat, and it was a pretty hard swim to reach it.”

He pulled himself down along the anchor line. “The water was actually pretty clear out there. This was 20- to 30-foot visibility. But there was no diver, no dive equipment, nothing.”

Still, Notthoff learned two important things from the dive.

First, the boat’s anchor, at the end of almost 300 feet of line, was stuck between two rocks. And second, the current beneath the vessel was the worst Notthoff had ever seen.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, and the current there was stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced. This is significantly nastier than any other place up here” — a result, he said, of the cape’s particular topography.

“There’s this chunk of land that sticks out there, and there’s just stuff coming from everywhere. It’s a very, very tough place.”

So what happened to Kawika Chetron?

It’s likely no one will ever know for sure, but a couple of possibilities have emerged.

The first is strongly suggested by three important pieces of evidence: the anchor, the camera and the strong ocean current.

Notthoff said Coast Guard personnel had been unable to pull the Rapture’s anchor, and he suspects Chetron had been aware of the problem.

In this scenario, Chetron discovers his anchor is stuck before he begins his dive, and deploys a current line with a buoy attached to the end which drifts downstream of the boat. He leaves his camera on board and dives down to free the anchor.

But he gets caught in the current and drifts away from the boat. He surfaces and looks for the current line to pull himself back to the boat, but he may not see the small buoy at the end because of the confused seas, or maybe he sees it but can’t swim to it.

The bulky dry suit he wears and equipment he carries extend his time frame of survival in the 55-degree water, but also impede his fight against the current. He bobs around briefly in the tumultuous currents of the cape, and then drifts farther out to sea.

The second possibility begins like the first. He discovers his anchor is stuck, deploys his current line, leaves his camera on board and dives to reset the anchor.

But in this scenario the trouble he encounters is not a fierce current but a great white shark.

Almost everyone interviewed for this story talked about the prevalence of sharks in the Blunts Reef area, although Notthoff, who dived in the same location two days after Chetron, said he didn’t see any.

“I’ve spent thousands of hours in the water up here and I’ve yet to see anything threatening that size,” he said. “But they’re certainly out there. The guys who fish off here have all seen big sharks.”

Ultimately, Notthoff said, it’s impossible to know, but he doesn’t believe a shark is an essential character in Chetron’s last great adventure.

“The place is just so nasty in and of itself that it doesn’t need a villain to add to it,” Notthoff said.

In an e-mail Monday, Notthoff wrote, “I believe that Kawika became separated from his boat either at depth or on the surface, and could not return to it. Even our extremely skilled Coast Guard would have difficulty locating him in the adverse conditions off the Northern California coast.”

Notthoff stated he wanted to talk about the recovery effort to help others learn from Chetron’s tragedy.

“If Kawika was lost trying to dislodge $100 worth of anchoring gear, he would not be the first diver to meet that fate. … Unless a diver is absolutely sure it is safe to recover a fouled anchor, leave it,” he wrote, adding that no amount of experience can substitute for local knowledge of a dive location.

“Anyone diving an unknown area should seek out and heed any warnings locals might offer.”

The camera was turned over to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. Public Information Officer Brenda Godsey said Friday that it was returned to Chetron’s family after the disk was removed for analysis.

“We don’t know if there are pictures on it or not,” she said. “We do not have that answer yet.”

As the wait for answers continues, Chetron’s friends remember the man they knew.

Bauder, Chetron’s diving partner and fellow photographer, said, “He was an excellent diver and photographer and an even better person. I only wish he could have waited for a day when friends could have come along or maybe talked him into doing something safer.

“I think we all admired his urge to explore and envied the freedom his do-it-alone attitude gave him, but now he seems to have paid a really steep price for it.”

“He went out doing what he wanted to do,” Tribolet said. “I think that’s what he would have said. But I also think he probably wanted to do it for another 30 or 40 years.”

The active search for Chetron was called off at sunset March 19.

A Coast Guard news release issued the following day stated, “Our thoughts and prayers are with (his) family during this time.”

Kawika Chetron is survived by his parents and numerous close friends.

For additional information about his life and photography, visit www.coldwaterimages.com.

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